London's Chinatown defiant amid coronavirus despite plummeting revenue

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - London’s Chinatown should be packed on an early Thursday evening, with its central location in the British capital and proximity to the West End, where some of the world’s most famous plays and musicals take place.

Tourists are congregated around the famous Chinatown Gate are notably thinner in number. The tile roofed structure is adorned with Mandarin script and intricately drawn dragons and was built in China to resemble a building from the Qing dynasty.

On the narrow streets branching off from the gate, the numbers of strollers are down drastically. Most seem to be walking through the area, rather than stopping at the array of restaurants and shops that have formed the historical heart of London’s Chinese community.

The smells are just as strong from the whole animals roasting the grills in an effort to entice customers. It’s unclear if the tactic is working. Inside, most restaurants are half full at a time when they would expect to be busy. And they are the lucky ones.

Others are completely empty, save for the smiling service staff standing smiling outside in the hope that someone will come in.

A worker waiting for customers in London's Chinatown district. AFP

According to David Tang, vice-chairman of the London Chinatown Chinese Association, about 50 per cent of business has been “wiped out” since the coronavirus outbreak. He fears the virus could destroy the area's business and leave long-term, irreversibly damage if it is not contained.

“Normally it’s quite busy especially on a Friday and Saturday night. People normally sit by the window but if you look closer, beyond the windows you can see lots of seats are empty,” he told The National.

“It all depends on the virus, it depends on how long will it go on for. If it’s going to be eradicated shortly, hopefully life will be back to normal but if you are talking about it going on for a few more months then, not only Chinatown will be affected, I think the whole world will be affected.”

“It’s not like buying you don’t like today you may buy next week. If you don’t eat today, the business loses. People don’t have to come to eat in Chinatown because they can at home,” he added.

Mr Tang says he has particularly noticed a fall in the visitors from mainland China.

But what also concerns Mr Tang, a lawyer, is the incorrect perceptions of London’s Chinatown and its population.

“A lot of people thought that by coming to Chinatown they will have more chance to catch the virus, which is not correct because nothing happened in Chinatown. The fears are based on unfounded fear really,” he told The National.

“You’ve got what 13 cases (the number is actually 15) here and only about three of them are Chinese. I think Chinatown is quite safe, most safe place so far! I mean I work in Chinatown, I’ve spent 50 per cent of my life in Chinatown. We don’t wear a mask, I don’t feel the need or my staff. In fact we feel it’s quite safe here.”

People with a Chinese background have also reported being abused as xenophobia takes root when some look for people to blame.

“You hear things from here and there but nothing really in Chinatown as far as threats are concerned. But of course, you hear about especially in the schools, young children sometimes say things,” he said.

With conspiracy theorists running wild over coronavirus and incorrect claims easily spread, Mr Tang’s view is clear: “My message is that it’s safe to come to Chinatown. There’s nothing wrong with Chinatown.”

Updated: February 29, 2020 09:34 AM

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